Jazz Fest is a busy time for Moncef Sbaa. During festival days, he helps run his family’s food booth at the Fair Grounds, serving dishes from their native Tunisia, and in the evenings he races back Uptown to host dinner at their Maple Street restaurant, Jamila’s.
After hours, however, he sometimes must change hats yet again for what he only half-jokingly calls “Jamila’s shuttle service.” When customers who arrived by cab have trouble getting a return ride, he often gives them a lift himself.
“It happens all of the time,” Sbaa said. “We call, they wait and wait, sometimes they think they’ll have to walk back downtown to their hotels. So I just say, OK, get in, I’ll bring you.”
If ferrying out-of-towners back to their lodgings sounds like service above and beyond the call of duty, for many other restaurateurs around New Orleans it is simply business as usual, though much to their growing frustration.
Difficulties and delays with cab service fuel a common lament among New Orleanians. Calling for a taxi pick-up at busy times might entail a long wait, and those hailing a cab on the street complain that drivers often balk at taking fares much farther than downtown or the French Quarter.
For restaurants, the situation cuts deeper and never so much as during big events, especially during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which fills the city with visitors who want to dine out and don’t have their own transportation.
That’s why the city ordinance passed this month to allow Uber and other digital-age ride-hailing services to expand in New Orleans has stirred strong interest in restaurant circles. These companies use smart phone apps to connect passengers with drivers of private vehicles who are registered with the service. After only two weeks of fully approved operations, however, it’s too early to gauge what impact it will bring.
So for now, restaurateurs are contending with a situation many say is damaging to their business and bad for the city’s image as a tourist destination. It’s a particular concern for restaurants that are on the map for food-focused visitors but require longer hauls from downtown hotels.
Hailing and praying
Chefs and restaurateurs interviewed for this story said wait times of an hour or more for cab pick-up are common, and, like Sbaa, many have resorted to driving customers back to their hotels or sending them with employees after their shifts, giving up all hope for a cab.
“They’re stranded and it’s not a good feeling for visitors to be stranded in a city they don’t know, wondering how they’re going to get back,” said JoAnn Clevenger, owner of Upperline Restaurant.
She’s loaded customers into her Honda Odyssey for return trips downtown, and she’s learned to modify her reservation policies during big events, quizzing diners on how they plan to arrive and building in extra time for the reservation when the answer is by taxi.
At Patois, proprietor Leon Touzet is even considering signing up to become an Uber driver himself, just to provide rides for his customers.
“That might be the only answer we have. I don’t know what else we can do,” he said.
Located down an Uptown side street near Audubon Park, this contemporary Creole bistro is just the sort of restaurant that dining-savvy visitors might hope to find, far off the beaten path. But that remove from the tourist circuit can be a problem for customers relying on cab service.
“It’s bad for everyone in the experience, and it hits you on different levels,” Touzet said. “It’s the time it takes for them to get a cab that will bring them up here. When they’re late, the kitchen gets crushed by the pace being off. It’s the waitress not getting a good tip because the people think it’s her fault, the next people having to wait for the table to open up, and then they need a cab back, too. It can destroy the night.”
As chef Jason Goodenough has learned since opening his Riverbend bistro Carrollton Market last spring, these long delays aren’t limited to Jazz Fest.
“Any time there’s a big weekend in New Orleans, it becomes a real problem,” he said.
As wait times drag on, he might try to assuage a table with a round of limoncello from the bar, or another cup of coffee, but eventually the restaurant has to take a more hands-on approach, he said. “You can only call so many times,” Goodenough said. “We’ve walked down to Carrollton (Avenue) a block away and flagged down cabs from the same companies we’ve been calling, and I’ve definitely taken people back myself.”
“Before Katrina, I had cabs lined up waiting at the door,” he said, referring to the previous Mid-City location of Rock ‘n’ Bowl. “You could count on it. Now, you call and call and call and sometimes they tell you, well, maybe we can get a cab there tomorrow.”
There’s an app for that
Cab companies are aware of the issue, but the president of the city’s largest taxi service said it boils down to supply, demand and what the surge of large events does to their normal balance.
“You have only so many cabs all over the city in different areas, they are not always going to be near you,” said Syed Kazmi, president of United Cabs Inc., which operates 450 of the city’s 1,600 licensed taxis.
“You have the cabs you have. Call when it’s slow, call in the summertime, and you get one fast. If it’s the festival or Mardi Gras or a football game and you add thousands of extra people in town, of course it’s hard to get to everybody. You can’t add 500 more cabs for the weekend and pull them back on Monday.”
Cab customers don’t always take into account factors beyond drivers’ control, Kazmi said, like traffic tie-ups from accidents, flooded streets during heavy rain or congestion on the interstate. And he said service to restaurants adds its own wrinkle, since the same eatery typically requests waves of cabs, as their tables turn in close succession during peak dinner hours.
The New Orleans taxi industry has seen significant upheaval lately. In 2012, the city created new rules that set a maximum age for their vehicles and mandated upgrades, including GPS systems and security cameras in each cab.
Now, the industry faces new competition from the tech-based ride-hailing services, and some companies are making changes to respond. Earlier this month, United Cabs launched its own smart phone app, joining a number of other local cab companies adding a digital alternative to hailing a passing cab or calling a dispatcher. But Kazmi said neither his app nor the introduction of Uber and its ilk would be a panacea.
“People think if you have an app and push a button a cab appears, but that’s not what happens,” he said. “There still always needs to be a cab near you for that to work.”
For its part, Uber, the first of the ride-hailing services to start operations here, says that demand for its cars has been strong so far. Tom Hayes, Uber’s general manager in New Orleans, wouldn’t specify how many drivers it now has registered in the city, but he said the company was ramping up and expanding its service.
“We’re also open to partnerships with restaurants, so that they can better serve their customers,” Hayes said.
Right place, wrong timing
Restaurateurs say customers visiting from other cities often expect a restaurant to furnish a cab promptly, and when it can’t the diners sometimes blame them.
“It’s not something you have control over, but it’s the last thing people experience and it can leave a bad taste in their mouths,” said Neal Bodenheimer, an owner of the Freret Street craft cocktail lounge Cure and other spots.
The issue cuts widely across restaurants large and small. At Commander’s Palace, general manager Don Strunk noted that a cab stand across the street from the Garden District restaurant is normally lined with taxis waiting for passengers during the meal hours.
But even here, he said, during busy times for the city all guarantees are off.
“What we usually tell people is there will be a cab waiting, but when we know there’s a crunch time we change up the verbiage to say we will do our best to get you a cab, just so we don’t make any false promises,” he said.
There are other options, including public transportation, though restaurateurs say customers prefer cabs and sometimes face similar frustrations when they try other means.
Upperline, for instance, is just a block from the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, but Clevenger said this alternative has grown less reliable lately, too.
“I’ve never heard so much anger and frustration from visitors. They’ll call us from the streetcar saying they’re on their way but will be late, or that they’ve been trying to get a streetcar but three have passed them by and they can’t get a cab,” she said. “It’s really gotten very weird.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.